By Kate Webber
Gin has its friends and enemies. There are those who swear by it, who enjoy the pine and juniper aromas, floral, pepper, all of that. And then there are those – a surprising amount, it seems, rivaled only by those who claim the same about tequila – that “can’t” drink gin, or more specifically just won’t. This is quite understandable, as gin isn’t necessarily that easy to understand. It isn’t clean and pure like vodka. It isn’t malty and smoky like whiskey. Gin is a secret combination of spices, fruits, and nuts. Individual distillers don’t even want us to know what’s in their gin—they keep their recipes a deathbed secret–so it can be hard to prepare ourselves in the first place. “Gin makes me mad” is what so many people claim, or even better: “Gin makes me mean.” I even used to say it myself. And although I would have you believe that gin got me into my fair share of bar fights, what I probably meant was that I didn’t understand it, and was in fact being confused by my cocktail. Well that’s enough to make anyone angry.
But if we look at how gin is made and what we can do with it, we can feel a little more comfortable with what might be in our glass. Gin is made by distilling grains to a high proof (eventually 180-190), and then distilling it a final time with a selection of botanicals added to the still. It is this final distillation that gives each gin its character and flavor. Here the distillers add different herbs, spices, barks, seeds, flowers, and citrus peel to create a unique flavor profile. The botanicals are placed on a perforated tray towards the top of the still—this allows the rising vapors of the evaporated alcohol to pick up the aromas and flavors of the botanicals as the vapor passes through the perforated shelf. When the vapor condenses back into liquid, it has been infused with these flavors.
So what botanicals do distillers choose, and why? To start, the predominant botanical of all gins must be the juniper berry (indeed, this is where gin gets its name: the Dutch word for “juniper” is “Genever,” shortened by the British to our “Gin”). Juniper has a distinct pine aroma to it. The next time you pick up a gin—any gin—smell it and see if you can identify the pine. After that, it’s any man’s—or botanical’s—game. Common botanicals used include coriander, angelica root, citrus peel, aniseed, fennel, clove, almond, geranium, cinnamon, and caraway. After smelling and tasting several gins across categories, some common flavors will become more recognizable, and gin itself a lot less intimidating.
What do we do with gin? Certainly with all these possible flavors, we’re not dealing with a blank slate like vodka. Gin is known, of course, for the martini. This is probably the purest gin cocktail as sometimes, with extra dry martinis, the only additional flavor is perhaps a vermouth-rinsed ice cube. Other popular gin cocktails include the Negroni (gin with Campari and Sweet Vermouth), the Aviation (with lemon juice, cherry brandy and Crème de Violette), French 75 (with lemon juice, sugar and Champagne) and the increasingly popular Corpse Reviver #2 (with Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, and Absinthe). A common factor in all of these cocktails is a lower perception of sweetness—they do not include grenadine or sour mix, and they use simple syrup and sugar very judiciously. The second factor is a lighter, less dominant secondary ingredient—no root beer, cream liqueurs, or fruit purees. The complex flavors of gin can easily be overpowered by excessively sweet or loud flavors. Look to the Classic Cocktails of Pre-Prohibition (1880-1920) when gin was celebrating its heyday. The recent re-emergence of the Classic Cocktail has been the best thing to happen to gin in the last 100 years.
So when you approach Gin, remember that you’re about to face an incredibly wide range of flavors, carefully chosen to create a specific flavor that distillers hope to be unrepeatable. But the more you practice and experience different gins, the more you will recognize, and the likely you will, in fact, find a gin you like. Just keep looking—they’re all different. Just stay away from the sour mix.
Kate’s Favorite Gin Cocktail: Satan’s Whiskers
Kate made this cocktail and gave it to a colleague who swore that she “did not drink Gin” because it “made her angry.” Somehow Kate’s colleague loved this drink. At no point in the evening was her disposition anything other than pleasant.
½ oz. Gin (preferably Beafeater)
½ oz. Dry Vermouth
½ oz. Sweet Vermouth
½ oz. Orange Juice
2 tsp. Orange Curaçao
1 tsp. Orange Bitters
Shake in an iced cocktail shaker, and strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with an orange twist.
Kate Webber is the co-owner of the Gibbet Hill Grill and the Barn at Gibbet Hill in Groton, Massachusetts. Also, she work as the sommelier for the Scarlet Oak Tavern and Fireside Catering for Webber Restaurant Development. Kate’s passion for wine and spirits led me to becoming a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Masters Sommeliers and the International Sommelier Guild, a Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Specialist of Spirits through the Society of Wine Educators, and an Associate Member of the Institute of Wine and Spirits through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).